X-Men: Apocalypse and the legend of Nimrod’s arrows

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Warning: There are some mild spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse here.

X-Men: Apocalypse is full of religious themes, but one scene in particular jumped out at me, because of how it uses an old legend about Nimrod and the Tower of Babel.

In the scene in question, Apocalypse — a god-like mutant who wakes up in 1983 after being in a coma for over five thousand years — telepathically connects to missile controllers all over the world and has them launch their nuclear missiles into space.

As he does this, Apocalypse declares portentously:

Always the same, and now all this. No more stones. No more spears. No more slings. No more swords. No more weapons! No more systems! No more superpowers. . . . You can fire your arrows from the Tower of Babel, but you can never strike God!

Setting aside for now the fact that arrows are not firearms and are therefore “loosed”, not “fired” (a mistake made by The Lord of the Rings and many other films), this is an obvious and intriguing — and subversive — reference to the Nimrod story.

The Bible doesn’t say much about Nimrod, but Genesis 10 does say that he was Noah’s great-grandson — born just two generations after the Flood — and that he ruled or founded the capital cities of the Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

Because of the role Nimrod played in the founding of Babylon, it is often assumed that he had something to do with the Tower of Babel (described in Genesis 11).

The traditions about Nimrod have sometimes said that either he or his underlings shot arrows at the sky from the tower — and that God sent the arrows back bloodied, to trick the people into thinking that they had succeeded in defeating him.

A Jewish midrash called the Sepir Ha Yasher, or Book of Jasher, states (in chapter 9):

25 And the building of the tower was unto them a transgression and a sin, and they began to build it, and whilst they were building against the Lord God of heaven, they imagined in their hearts to war against him and to ascend into heaven.

26 And all these people and all the families divided themselves in three parts; the first said We will ascend into heaven and fight against him; the second said, We will ascend to heaven and place our own gods there and serve them; and the third part said, We will ascend to heaven and smite him with bows and spears; and God knew all their works and all their evil thoughts, and he saw the city and the tower which they were building. . . .

29 And the Lord knew their thoughts, and it came to pass when they were building they cast the arrows toward the heavens, and all the arrows fell upon them filled with blood, and when they saw them they said to each other, Surely we have slain all those that are in heaven.

30 For this was from the Lord in order to cause them to err, and in order; to destroy them from off the face of the ground.

The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that these legends about Nimrod, the tower and the arrows passed into the Muslim tradition as well, with some modifications:

After many years had been spent in the construction of the tower, Nimrod ascended to its top, but he was greatly surprised to find that the heavens were still as remote from him as when he was on the ground. . . . Undaunted by this failure, Nimrod planned another way to reach the heavens. He had a large chest made with an opening in the top and another in the bottom. At the four corners of the chest stakes were fixed, with a piece of flesh on each point. Then four large vultures, or, according to another source, four eagles, previously fed upon flesh, were attached to the stakes below the meat. Accompanied by one of his most faithful viziers, Nimrod entered the chest, and the four great birds soared up in the air carrying the chest with them (comp. Alexander’s ascent into the air; Yer. ‘Ab. Zarah iii. 42c; Num. R. xiii. 13). The vizier opened alternately the upper and lower doors of the chest in order that by looking in both directions he might know whether or not he was approaching heaven. When they were so high up that they could see nothing in either direction Nimrod took his bow and shot arrows into the sky. Gabriel thereupon sent the arrows back stained with blood, so that Nimrod was convinced that he had avenged himself upon Abraham’s God.

Not surprisingly, these legends have been depicted or alluded to in a few films.1

First, there is John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), in which Nimrod is played by Stephen Boyd (who previously played Messala in Ben-Hur):

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Nimrod shoots his arrow into the sky, and at that point we hear God say that he will go down there and confuse the languages of the people. A wind rises up and knocks the people down as well as some of the scaffolding around the Tower, and when the wind dies down, Nimrod finds that he cannot understand what anyone is saying.

Then there is the Iranian film Abraham, the Friend of God (2008):

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Here, an advisor tells Nimrod, “You are the lord of the earth. Go and fight the lord of the sky!” So Nimrod climbs to the top of his tower and shoots an arrow into the sky “to kill Abraham’s god.” But as soon as Nimrod shoots his arrow, an insect flies up his nose and begins to drive him insane. And so the mighty Nimrod is brought low.

The Nimrod story also provides some subtext for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014):

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Tubal-Cain, the villain of Aronofsky’s film, is basically a Nimrod-figure, for a whole host of reasons — and one of those reasons is that he fires a tzohar cannon into the sky just before he rallies his troops with a speech inspired by the Babel story.

The striking thing about the reference to the Tower of Babel in X-Men: Apocalypse is how it plays over images of nuclear missiles being shot into space — and how these images, combined with Apocalypse’s words, twist the familiar legend.

For one thing, those nuclear missiles were never meant to be shot at God, but at other nations. It is Apocalypse, not we, who aimed them at space (or the heavens).

But Apocalypse claims to be God himself, so when he aims the missiles at space, he is aiming them away from God, as it were, from his point of view, and not at God.

And yet, as the film makes clear on multiple occasions, Apocalypse is himself a “false god” and not the real God — so perhaps, by shooting all those missiles into space to prove his power, he has more in common with Nimrod than he might think.

And yet, in comparing our own mastery of the world through technology to the hubris of those who built the Tower of Babel, Apocalypse does kind of have a point.

There are a few things I don’t like about the nuclear-missile sequence in this film — such as its distracting use of a Stan Lee cameo at an otherwise serious moment — but I do like the way it plays with the Nimrod story and points it in multiple directions.

1. A search for Nimrod (or “Nemrod”, as his name is spelled in French) in Hervé Dumont’s massive index L’Antiquité au cinéma turns up just six films, including the two I mention here. The others are: the Turkish films Hazreti Ibrahim (1964) and Nemrud (1979), the Iranian stop-motion puppet film Ebrahim dar Golestan (1983), and the American film The Eternal Jew (1933), filmed entirely in Yiddish. I have not seen those films and have no idea if they depict Nimrod or anyone else shooting arrows at the sky.

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